Be kind to the person behind the counter


I only had 30 minutes for lunch today. I went to "Lotteria" on the Pusan waterfront, mistakenly thinking I could grab an unnutritious, bland, cheap, quick fast food lunch. I waited 25 minutes for my meal and had to take it to go. I brought it back to the hotel and didn’t have a chance to eat it until 2:30 p.m., long after lunchtime. The cashier behind the counter took an excrutiating long time to fill my order. I was really hungry while I helped customers myself.

Did I yell at her? Nope. Did I chastise her for taking so long? No, I didn’t. I told her I needed to change my order to go. She knew what I meant and apologized. I told her I under stood because many years ago I also worked in fast food. I remember what it was like dealing with irate customers. This poor girl had to run the entire store while 200 or more Korean schoolchildren milled around, waiting to go to the aquarium. She was cook and cashier. I watched how fast she had to work keeping up with customers, making and filling their order. She literally ran to the back area to make the food. I could have ranted at her for being slow in filling my order, but instead, I empathized. I felt sorry for her and was mad at her management for scheduling so few people to run the store. At the very least, the store manager should have been there to help out if the restaurant was short staffed. Instead, this girl had to work her heart out filling orders for impatient, disgruntled customers. I have been in her shoes myself. I know how frustrating it can feel. I did learn one thing from years of working in "hamburger hell"–be kind to the person working behind the counter, serving you. They’re people too, and you never know when they will pay your kindness forward or take your anger out on someone else.

Most of the Americans I helped in Pusan this week were nice and understanding, even when they waited awhile. However, one person in particular was not so kind. They cut in line to ask me a question, and they got angry because they did not wait to get all of the information they needed and were consequently inconvenienced when they found out they needed to provide me with additional information. Their response was very curt and abrasive, and they stated with irritation in their voice, "Fine, I’ll go to Seoul." They refused to wait patiently and finish in Pusan, instead opting to be even more inconvenienced by taking a train all the way up to Seoul. Guess who will be waiting for them in Seoul? Yours truly. Will they receive good service from me up there? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on whether I want to take my irritation out on them or repay them with kindness. I haven’t decided yet.

Greetings from Haeundae!


I’m writing you in the business center at the lovely 5-star Paradise Hotel in Haeundae, Korea.  I’m about 14 kilometers from Pusan.  I was happy to find out the hotel that has free Internet access so I can post at least a short blog entry today.  The hotel is very nice.  It sits on the waterfront overlooking Korea’s most popular beach.  During the summer, up to 90,000 visitors a day flock to Haeundae to enjoy the beach.  It isn’t quite Waikiki, Hawaii, but Haeundae is definitel a nice resort town.  I’m glad that it’s fall now, because I can enjoy the town and the beach in relative peace and quiet.  In mid-November, this place will change dramatically as Haeundae hosts the upcoming APEC Summit.  In fact, today the power went off several times at the hotel as engineers ran test power outages in advance of the APEC Summit.
 
I came down here for work.  I will help Americans for a couple of days before returning to Seoul.  My family is coming along for the ride.  I could not have asked for a better job assignment.  I wanted to come down to help out with APEC Summit preparations, but it was not meant to be.  I’m more than happy to settle for this assignment, because I hear that those who will be involved with APEC will be scrounging around for places to sleep.  My room is comfortable with a gorgeous view of the beach and the East Sea (a.k.a. Sea of Japan).  Sometimes this job is so tough.  Someone has to do it!  🙂
 
My wife and son arrive soon.  They are taking the KTX train to Pusan like I did yesterday.  My son is absolutely fascinated by trains, and his appetite for all things "Thomas" (Thomas the Tank Engine) is insatiable.  Riding the KTX train will be a joy for him, at least for part of the trip.  I hope he gets a window seat so he can see the Korean countryside.  One of his favorite "Thomas the Tank Engine" characters is Spencer, the sleek, modern silver train owned by the Duke and Duchess.  We told my son before the trip that he will ride on Spencer to see daddy, and he grew very excited.  The trip is short–about 2.5 hours–so it should keep him preoccupied for awhile.  I hope his mom was able to manage him without consternation! 
 
I will try to write again tomorrow about Pusan.  From what I have seen, it’s a beautiful city hugging the coastline and cradling the mountains inside the city limits.  It’s one of the world’s largest seaports, and it has a great seaport atmosphere.  If you visit Korea and have time, take a journey out of Seoul on the KTX and visit Pusan.

A husband-wife team teams up


My wife is putting our son to bed, so I have a little time tonight to tell you about our anniversary celebration today.  Again, thanks to everyone who posted an anniversary suggestion.  You gave me some great ideas for future anniversary celebrations.  This year we did not buy each other any gifts.  Instead, we gave each other the gift of time.  I took the day off, and we left our son with the nanny for the day and ventured out to celebrate our anniversary as a couple.  We went hiking at Bukhansan National Park located just north of Seoul.  When I told my boss that we were going hiking for our anniiversary, he thought the idea was a bit odd.  Perhaps so, but then again, we aren’t a conventional couple.  Hiking is one of our favorite joys in life.  We love to travel and hike wherever we go.  Our all-time favorite "hike" was Cinque Terre, Italy, followed by Maui, Hawaii.  (Cinque Terre is a group of traditional Italian villages about an hour north of Pisa along the Meditteranean Sea.  If you have ever been to Cinque Terre, you will probably agree that it is truly breathtaking.)  I posted photos of both our Bukhansan National Park and Myeongdong trip in the photos section.  A reader mentioned that I should post more photos of Koreans, so I tried to take more photos with people this time.  People are key to understanding any culture. 
 
We left home at about 11 a.m. this morning.  We took the subway to Dobongsan Station on Line 1 and Line 7.  Dobongsan is situated in the far northern reaches of Seoul and borders the north end of Bukhansan National Park.  A mere 78 square kilometers, according to Lonely Planet, Bukhansan is a gem a place in greater Seoul.  The park’s granite peaks are beautiful, and the park is just a 40-minute subway ride from downtown Seoul.  Lonely Planet offered far too few details about the park in its Korea guidebook.  The book mentioned Dobongsan in just one sentence, highlighting a glaring shortcoming of the world’s most famous guidebook.  Lonely Planet is great for backpacking, short-term tourists, and those on a shoestring budget, but I find that Lonely Planet guides lack depth and do not meet the expectations of expatriates.  Anyway, my wife and I walked about 15 minutes from the station to the park entrance.  The entrance located at the end of the first street to the left of the station.  The park entrance is surrounded by dozens of restaurants and hiking equipment/clothing stores.  Bodongsan features a number of tofu restaurants, seafood restaurants, beer tents, and REI-style shops.  It’s a great place for hikers to go before or after their hike in the park.
 
We decided beforehand not to overly exert ourselves hiking.  He haven’t hiked for awhile, and today is a weekday.  We will head to Pusan soon and need to save our energy.  The hike began easily enough; the paved and cobblestone path gradually ascended into the park next to a beautiful stream with cascading waterfalls.  Along the way, we passed a Buddhist temple and saw Koreans relaxing near the stream.  Equipment vendors hawked outdoor gear and Buddhist paraphenelia, and a saxophonist played a pretty song that wafted through the valley.  The weather was beautiful again today, making the hike a pleasant one.  We hiked along the stream for about half an hour.  When the pavement ended and the natural path began, it split into two branches.  We took the left branch and headed towards Ulum Rock.  The ascent was relatively steep, perhaps a three out of five on the hiker’s scale.  The path was well worn and friendly.  We made it to the apex of the loop path we hiked and took photos of the mountains and the Seoul cityscape.  We then descended and arrived back at the park entrance about an hour later.  We did not try to hike up to Ulum Rock today.  Korean hikers told us we had the wrong kinds of shoes.  (I wore Teva sandals, and my wife wore casual shoes.  Koreans are quick to notice footwear.  When I was in Seoraksan, a man on the mountain wearing dress shoes told me my Teva sandals were inadequate for hiking.  I laughed to myself.)  Our anniversary journey in Bukhansan National Park lasted about three hours.  Upon returning to the park entrance, we rested at an outdoor cafe. 
 
Later, we took the subway to Myeongdong, a famous shopping district in Seoul.  It is trendy and happening, one of many places in Seoul where Korean youths rule.  We ate our anniversary dinner at The Taj, a delicious Indian restaurant.  We also shopped a bit, and I observed the throngs of people in Myeongdong.  I saw very few foreigners, perhaps a handful, at either Bukhansan or Myeongdong.  I wore a Hawaiian shirt today, and I was a very obvious misfit in both locales.  The Koreans at Dobongsan generally wore hiking gear that left the impression that they are avid hikers.  None wore sandals and a shirt like I did.  In Myeongdong, trendy Koreans wore the latest fashions.  Hawaiian shirts are not in style, apparently!  I was a bit surprised to find that even in trendy Myeongdong, there are barbershops that offer "other" services.  In Korea, one barbershop pole indicates you can get a haircut and a platonic massage.  A double barbershop pole means that for an additional price you can receive sexual services (see photos in Myeongdong album).  Barbershops and karaoke establishments are everywhere in Korea, and some are fronts for illicit services.  It is one of the aspects of Korean society that most folks here know about but rarely discuss.
 
My wife and I make a great team.  We complement one another well.  She tends to be strong where I am weak, and vice versa.  Today’s anniversary journey was a test of our ability to work as a team.  My wife suggested hiking at Bukhansan, and I located Dobongsan and guided us there.  We helped each other all along the hike.  For example, we saw the Korean word "bong" everywhere and wondered what it meant.  I saw a map and guessed that it meant "peak," and she corroborated that assumption by pointing out that "bong" is related to the Chinese word for "peak," or "feng."  We are a great team, and I’m glad that we have been a team that has lasted for better or for worse, richer and poorer, through sickness and health.

An observation


I am at work tonight, wrapping up some important projects before I take the day off tomorrow.  As it is my anniversary, I probably will not write a blog entry tomorrow (if I do, I better give my wife a good reason).  In fact, I could be offline for the next few days.  Tomorrow my wife and I will go hiking, and we will have dinner at Bonasera Italian Restaurant in Gangnam, which I hear is highly recommended by the Italian Embassy (you can’t beat a recommendation like that).  On Wednesday, I will start the day at work, say goodbye to a coworker who is retiring after 20 years of service, and then I’ll hit the road with another coworker.  We’ll head to Daegu via KTX train to visit a couple of Americans in the afternoon, and then we’ll travel to Pusan to assist Americans on Thursday and Friday.  It’s my first trip to Pusan, and I’m looking forward to it.  My family will join me on Thursday evening, and we will tour Pusan together on Saturday before heading home.  Although Korea is a very wired country, I do not know how much time or opportunity I will have to go online and update this blog.  I will definitely be back online to update World Adventurers by Saturday evening, though.  All commentators need to take a break now and then, right?  One of these days I’ll invite a special guest or sidekick to write for me.  Perhaps my cousin and ever faithful blog reader, Wade3016, will fill in for me.  He’s been quiet here lately, but I’m sure with a mere mention of his name he will post a comment.  His interests are a little different than mine, but he is very entertaining.
 
So, Dear Reader, until I can write again, I leave you with this observation:
 
As I drove to work tonight around 9 p.m., I saw a schoolgirl waiting at an intersection in downtown Seoul.  Dressed in her school uniform, she was alone, not at all like the multitudes of schoolgirls I saw today wandering the streets at about 3:30 p.m.  She carried a book bag.  She looked tired.  She could not have been older than 12 years old.  To a Korean, she is considered diligent.  She probably finished up her English lesson at the hagwon (학원), a Korean term for a private, evening English language institute.  She will probably head home via the subway to her family’s apartment somewhere in Seoul and will study at home for another two or three hours.  Around midnight, she may head to bed, or she might stay up later and study some more.  Either way, four hours after going to bed, she will probably get up again to start another school day.  Upon seeing this girl, an American would ask questions.  Why is this girl walking downtown in a big city alone at night?  Why does she have to study so long and so hard?  Isn’t private tutoring expensive?  Why are her parents allowing this or forcing her to do this?  Isn’t it dangerous?  How can any kid sleep four hours every night and survive? 
 
This girl reminded me of how different Korean culture can be from American culture.  While I understand the Korean desire to educate children, I never want my son to have to come home alone after 9 p.m. after a long day at the hagwon.  I hope he will be successful, but I could never drive him to such excess for the sake of success.  Korean children are brilliant, but I think the Korean education system is very hard on Korean children.

Livin’ la vida domesticada


Today was a great day, one of nicest we have had since we arrived here.  The weather in Seoul was absolutely gorgeous.  It was sunny and mild.  The heavy rains and flashing flooding from the night before washed away the grit of the city, making it clean and crisp.  I called my father to wish him an early happy birthday.  He will be 60 years old this year according to the solar calendar.  In Korea, a person’s 60th birthday, or hwan-gap (환갑), is a significant milestone in one’s life.  60 years represents longevity and signifies that a person has lived long enough to experience five complete cycles of the Zodiac.  (The Korean Zodiac is based on the Chinese Zodiac, which last 12 years with each year represented by an animal.)  Unfortunately, my father is not too excited about celebrating his 60th birthday.  He does not even want a birthday party or birthday gifts.  That’s too bad.  Even if I were there to celebrate it, it would not be much of a celebration.  I can’t blame him, because I too am not very excited about celebrating my own birthday.  After the age of 30, birthdays tend to mean that you’re one year older and closer to the end of your life.  The lack of enthusiasm for growing a year older must run in the family.
 
After I called my father, my family went for lunch and grocery shopping.  In early afternoon, I mowed the lawn, and I weeded the flower beds in front of the house.  Mundane, I know, but I still enjoyed it.  I don’t mind short-term projects such as yard work.  I haven’t had much time to do yard work lately, so our lawn and flower beds were embarassingly overgrown.  My neighbors’ homes are generally well manicured, so our yard appeared conspicuously neglected.  My wife pruned back the flowers, and I weeded.  My son even helped out by watering the gardens for his mom.  He was a good boy today. 
 
Tonight we hosted a dinner for my wife’s future boss and his girlfriend.  The man who helped her find her new job and his fiancee also joined us.  I had to go to the store twice for food items we forgot to buy for tonight’s dinner, so I was not able to finish mowing the backyard.  We also started late preparing dinner.  I was still grilling by the time the guests arrived.  I grilled steaks, Korean-style short ribs (galbi), vegetable skewers, and hamburgers.  Our son was taking a nap when our guests arrived, and the commotion woke him up prematurely.  As a result, he was very cranky.  My wife was at wit’s end trying to prepare the dinner, greet guests, and take care of our son.  I was too busy grilling to help inside the house.  The situation was quite stressful for both of us until I finished grilling.  After that, I took my son off my wife’s hands, gave her the grill food, and took my son to the playground.  My wife and our guests started dinner without me.  It’s the first time I’ve been late to a dinner party she we arrived in Seoul.  It was worth it, though.  Going to the playground cheered up my son, and after that he was fine.  I played with him for almost two hours and didn’t join our guests for dinner until about 8 p.m.  I would have liked to have spent more time with our guests, but I knew that I needed to take care of my son so that my wife could entertain her future boss and the one who helped her find her new job.  My wife promised that one of these nights I can have a night out of my own.  For now, I look forward to taking a day off to enjoy our anniversary and spending the rest of the week in Pusan with my family.

Taking two for the team


I spent much of the day today at the COEX Mall at the Fall 2005 Korean Emigration Fair.  The fair is for students who would like to travel abroad to study (and possibly emigrate).  Lately, I’ve tried to cut back on the number of out-of-office engagements I participate in because I’m already very busy at work.  These events are good overtime opportunities, and they also give you a chance to reach out to the community.  I’ve already done many of these events and did not really need to do another for awhile.  The weekends are already short as it is; a Saturday day event limits the weekend to Sunday.  On Friday afternoon, the front office asked me to sub for someone who had planned to attend the fair but backed out on short notice.  I did not want to attend, but I decided that I needed to take one for the team.  I reluctantly accepted.  Fortunately, my wife understood and gave her blessing.  During the fair, I gave a 30-minute presentation to about 55 attendees and answered questions for another 30 minutes.  Afterwards, I manned a booth at the fair and answered visitors’ questions about studying in the United States.  I also attended this fair last March.  At the time, I was still new to Seoul and did not have answers to many people’s questions.  This time I was much better prepared.
 
Although I don’t enjoy public speaking, my presentation went well.  My delivery was good, in spite of a few challenges.  For one, my knowledge of the subject is dated.  Secondly, the presentation I used was in Korean, and my English guide was different than the Korean version.  As a result, I had to improvise and modify my presentation.  It is tricky making sure that what you say in English matches what is written in Korean on a PowerPoint presentation.  I also had a Korean interpreter, and I needed to make sure that she understood the content of my presentation.  At times I forgot to stop and let her translate what I said into Korean.  Fortunately, she did a great job keeping up with me.
 
After I came home, I took care of my son.  My wife went out tonight with some girlfriends for a "girl’s night on the town."  I was happy to oblige.  She spends so much time with our son that I was happy to encourage her to go out with friends.  I also enjoy spending quality time alone with my son.  He is better behaved with me when his mom isn’t around.  My wife went out for deokgalbi and stayed out until long after my son’s bedtime.  She had a great time.  My son and I also had a wonderful time.  He’s been sick, but he felt a little better tonight.  I gave him some medicine and fed him dinner.  We colored a few pictures, played with trains, and did some puzzles.  I gave him a bath and got him ready for bed.  He was such a good boy–until I tried to get him to sleep.  His mom puts him to sleep every night, and tonight he resisted falling asleep with me.  He cried for his mom.  It took me over an hour to get him to sleep, but I finally did.  Although I was happy to give my wife the night off and take care of my son, the frustration of getting my son to sleep and reluctantly going to the student fair today made me feel like I took two for the team.

Korean luxury brand to debut in the U.S.?


How does the brand name "Equus" strike you?  Do you like it?  By 2009, you may see a new automobile marquee by that name driving around the United States.  The Equus is Hyundai’s flagship domestic Korean luxury sedan.  Introduced in 1999, it is Korea’s #1 luxury car, followed by BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus.  Rumor has it that Hyundai may introduce the Equus to the U.S. automobile market soon under the Hyundai nameplate.  Edmunds.com is reporting that Hyundai of America is testing a prototype of the 2008 Equus that could represent the first Hyundai introduced under a new luxury brand.  If Hyundai does introduce a new luxury brand to the U.S., the name will most likely be the "Equus," which I think is a fine name.  The name evokes both style and balance.  In its drive to become one of the world’s top five automobile manufacturers, Hyundai must introduce a global luxury brand and should consider developing a line of trucks under the Kia brand (Hyundai owns Kia, and Kia produces small trucks for the domestic Korean market).  Hyundai has improved immeasurably in recent years and now ranks up with Honda and Toyota in J.D. Powers’ quality rankings.  Sources tell me that this is partly because Hyundai relied heavily on Toyota to improve its quality.  However, Hyundai has rightfully emerged as an automaker to watch.  In the 1990’s, the name Hyundai evinced cringes by wary American consumers; now, more and more Americans are discovering that Korean automobiles are affordable, well-built, and stylish.
 
The Korean domestic automobile market is very interesting.  Five companies dominate the market:  1)  Hyundai Motors; 2) Kia Motors (part of the Hyundai Group); 3) GM-Daewoo (a division of General Motors); 4) Samsung Motors (a division of RenaultNissan Motors); and 5) Ssangyong Motors (a division of China’s Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, or SAIC).  In my opinion, a country of 44 million such as South Korea cannot sustain five domestic automakers.  During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, every Korean automaker felt the impact of the crisis, and the four smaller companies sought to avoid liquidation by selling out to other manufacturers.  Hyundai scooped up Kia, and foreign automakers purchased the other three.  The crisis allowed foreign companies entree into a relatively closed Korean automobile market.  For example, General Motors’ products do not sell well in Korea, but GM-Daewoo has been fairly successful since GM reluctantly acquired Daewoo in 2002.  Interestingly, the company’s Shanghai GM partner in China, SAIC, is a major competitor in South Korea because SAIC owns Ssangyong Motors. 
 
I expect the Koreans to make three advances into the U.S. automobile market in the next decade.  First, Hyundai will introduce the Equus as its luxury brand.  Second, General Motors will leverage GM-Daewoo to source Korean components to its U.S. brands.  For example, a Daewoo platform will used in a Chevrolet compact car.  Daewoo has a presence in Europe, but GM will not introduce Daewoo to the U.S. market.  Third, SAIC could introduce its first car, an SUV such as the Ssangyong Rexton, to the U.S. market under the Ssangyong Motors nameplate.  Ssangyong is a better-known name than SAIC, which markets cars under different nameplates than "SAIC."  Korea is already a major source of automobile components to the U.S. and owns a 5% share of the U.S. auto market, so it is logical that the Koreans will continue to bolster their presence in the U.S.
 
From the "Things that Make You Go Hmm…" Department:  I turned on CNN briefly tonight and heard the anchor speaking with a British accent.  It occurred to me that whenever I watch CNN International, I listen to newscasters broadcast with British accents.  However, whenever I listen to CNN in the U.S., the newscasters speak with either British or American accents.  Why doesn’t CNN International, including CNN Europe, offer broadcasts with newscasters who speak with American accents?  I may be wrong.  If you are outside the U.S. and watch CNN, let me know if you’ve ever heard an American accent.  I think CNN may have a bit of a bias towards British English.  There is no reason why CNN International newscasters much speak British English.